Sure enough when Dan crossed the border back into Russia on Wednesday 20 July, the process was straightforward and problem-free. The weather was improving all the time, too, and Dan was hopeful that he might have a chance to dry his tent out before having to sleep in it that night. The road on the Russian side continued as an excellent tar road winding through pleasant scenery of pine-forest-clad hills and the occasional lake or river. Dan’s target for the day was to get beyond Ulan-Ude towards Irkutsk that evening, so having only left the border at 5pm, it was late in the evening by the time Dan was looking for somewhere to camp.
The first dirt-road turning off the tar road took Dan straight to a small village – not ideal camping. After heading back to the main road, Dan spotted a small turning near a bridge, and headed down to investigate. Secluded enough, but sadly still very close to both the road and the railway, this would have to do. Dan put his tent up, pausing only to curse the tent pole that snapped at exactly the point he’d predicted it might, before a quick snack of some crisps brought from Ulaanbaatar before settling for the night. It had been a long day’s ride, and there would be more long days to come to catch up with Ed who was already some days ahead on his way to Severobaikalsk and the start of the BAM road.
The Baikal Amur Mainline is the second Trans-Siberian railway, built predominantly for strategic reasons in the 1970s as the existing Trans-Siberian is very close to the Chinese border. The BAM road is simply a dirt road constructed in parallel to aid construction of the railway, some of which is still regularly used and maintained, other parts of which can nolonger be used by normal traffic due to partially or completely destroyed bridges and a complete lack of maintenance. It has become quite popular with western overlanders in search of a challenge in the last few years since being pioneered and publicised by Walter Colebatch and his buddies Terry and Tony. The BAM road had been included in the Brighton2Siberia route in order to provide one of the main challenges of the trip, and neither Dan nor Ed was overly keen to tackle it solo.
On Thursday 21 July, Dan was up and packed by 6am, and back on the road towards Irkutsk. Around the southern shore of Lake Baikal, the road followed the line of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and riding alongside thundering freight trains was something both of the guys would be getting used to on the BAM.
Dan arrived in Irkutsk before 12 noon, and after finding a bank and negotiating the “take a ticket” queuing system (all banks need more slips of paper, after all…) Dan was able to change the last of his original stash of US dollars into Roubles, and was able to buy some fuel to continue progress northwards up the west side of Lake Baikal. Ed had sent through a waypoint for somewhere he and Alistair had camped on the shores of Lake Baikal near Olkhon Island. Dan had originally been keen to visit the island, so was keen to at least head to the shore of the lake and take a look from the side, even if the time spent queuing for the ferry could be better spent making further progress north. The road out of Irkutsk was good tar road, as indeed was much of the seventy miles or so of the turning to the jetty from which the ferry departs. The last section was mostly good graded gravel road, with the exception of a few roadworks which had been included to keep things interesting.
Dan arrived at Ed and Alistair’s camping spot at 4pm, and took a few photos, before deciding to turn round, head back to the main road and make more progress north – he also had the waypoint for where the other two had stayed the next night, which was now the target for the day.
Heading west back along the gravel road towards the main tar road, Dan now had the sun in his eyes, making it more difficult to spot areas of deeper dust or gravel on the road surface. Running through these unseen hazards had the back end of the DRZ sashaying around behind him like 140kg of Suzuki’s finest chiffon, but the lightweight rig was never intimidating.
Back at the main road, Dan stopped at the fuel station to top up the tank again and bought a couple of litres of overpriced Magnatec to do an oil change in a few hundred miles’ time, a can of coke and an emergency twix, before getting back on the bike and heading north again, towards Zhigalovo. By 8pm the road had changed from tar to gravel, the villages had started to get smaller and the scenery had started to get bigger – the forest and river was starting to take over the view from the saddle. By 10pm, Dan had reached the point at which Ed and Alistair had stayed after leaving Olkhon, and it made sense to set up camp in the same field. An exhausted Dan parked his bike out of sight and pitched his tent next to it, before collapsing onto his thermarest for the night and sleeping soundly – Dan and the DRZ had covered 595 miles that day and sleep came easily.
Friday 22 July saw a damp foggy start for Dan, but figuring it was better to be making slow progress than no progress, Dan packed up anyway and the wheels were rolling at 7am. Thankfully the worst of the fog hung around by the river, so where the road deviated from the course of the river here and there, Dan could mostly close his visor and start making decent progress again.
In Zhigalovo, Dan hunted around for a shop to buy some food and water, and with provisions safely stowed headed out of town along the road through the forest. The forest was an unusual sight – Siberian trees often show evidence of what Dan assumed to be snow damage – trunks curved sometimes right down to the ground presumably by heavy snow fall on the branches. Here however many of the trees seemed to be suffering from something else to make them lose their leaves or die altogether, allowing much more light than usual down to the forest floor, which had resulted in the place being alive with purple flowers.
In places the wet dirt road showed signs of two motorcycle tracks, which was surprising. Dan expected Ed and Alistair to be in Severobaikalsk already and whilst the BAM road is increasing in popularity amongst overlanders, it is hardly a busy route just yet. There are very few local motorcycles to speak of, so the tracks were a mystery. Dan started to wander if perhaps there were other overlanders heading north to the BAM after all.
As the road continued to weave through the forest, Dan rounded a corner and could see two bikes parked on the other side of a bridge. At first glance, the bike he could see most clearly looked large, with metal panniers and what was big enough to be a British plate under the film of mud that obscured it. It was only as Dan rode across the bridge that he realised what he was looking at was Alistair’s Dominator and Ed’s WR – the pair of them having stopped at the side of the road for a break.
After a lengthy chat to catch up with news from both sides, the three bikes continued along the road to Onukaisky, where a right turn onto a dirt track saw them start their progress along the BAM road towards Severobaikalsk. A commemorative sign for the completion of a section of the BAM railway near a petrol station prompted a stop for photos, all three riders a little excited to now be riding alongside the railway which would accompany them eastwards for the next nine hundred miles or so.